The CLK line has been a success for Mercedes-Benz since the introduction of the CLK 320 coupe in 1998. It was far sportier and more stylish than the previous-generation Mercedes coupe, and priced significantly lower. The CLK lineup has been expanded for 1999. Those who want to work on their suntans while driving can opt for the CLK 320 Cabriolet, powered by the same 3.2-liter, 215-horsepower V6 engine found in the CLK 320 coupe and featuring an easy-to-use power-operated disappearing convertible top. Coupe fanciers with a taste for power can now have the CLK 430, with a 275-horsepower V8. Your choice: open air or V8 power.
Ironically, the heat of summer can make a convertible a miserable experience. During the week I had the CLK 320 Cabrio, the temperature climbed over 100 degrees with depressing regularity. Top- down operation in those conditions is an invitation to sunstroke. Fortunately, the cabrio's three-layer top has a nearly inch-thick middle layer of insulation that really works. It keeps heat out and cool air in, and does as well at keeping noise at bay. It's nearly as quiet with the top up in the cabrio as in either of the CLK coupes; top-down has just enough wind for the convertible experience but not too much. The top is lowered by twisting a central latch in the top of the windshield frame, and then holding a button. The metal tonneau comes up, the top goes down, the tonneau closes. It's a very cleanly-designed, easy-to-use package. As is the case with convertibles, though, top storage cuts into the trunk space, and, with the top up, rear quarter visibility requires judicious use of the mirrors.
For about the same price, the CLK 430 offers more sports car performance than is usual in the premium coupe class, and the all of expected luxury comfort. Consider it luxury with serious attitude. To enhance its handling ability, the Sport Package staggered-size wheels and tires and the ESP stability control system are standard equipment. The CLK430 is a comfortable, eminently satisfying gentleman's (or woman's) express. Choices, choices, choices.
APPEARANCE: The face is familiar.... The CLK 430 shares all major body parts with the 320, but a close inspection reveals an AMG-styled lower front fascia and rocker panels that give a slight "ground effects" look, and 5-spoke, 17-inch AMG rims, with wider wheels and tires at the rear. It subtly sends a message of performance. The CLK Cabrio is no afterthought. The cabrio is somewhat separate from the coupe in structure, making up for its lack of a steel top with extra reinforcement in the lower part of the chassis. Although the coupes and cabriolet share sheetmetal ahead of the windshield, the cabrio's rear bodywork is subtly different to accommodate the convertible top and metal tonneau. The top's shape, raised, is similar to the coupe's roofline. With the top down, two headrest extensions in the metal tonneau are an interesting styling touch.
COMFORT: Although the CLKs look small outside, they seem larger inside. Both the coupe and convertible are close to the C-Class in all important interior measurements, although the Cabrio does have slightly less rear-seat legroom. They are four-seaters, with no provision for a center rear passenger. The CLKs have their own interior, similar to other Mercedes-Benzes in design but not shared. They are luxury cars at heart, so perforated leather upholstery and walnut trim are standard. The seats are typically firm and comfortable. A short, sloping instrument panel increases space; the prominent instrument pod presents information well. The new-style audio system head is very compact, with the cassette played hidden behind the front panel. Either variety of CLK is as functional as a sedan, but most of the Cabrio's trunk is taken up by the top. The coupes have nearly as much trunk space as a C-Class sedan.
SAFETY: Both the CLK320 cabrio and CLK430 coupe have four- wheel antilock discs brakes with BrakeAssist for emergency stops, dual front and side airbags, and front and rear crumple zones. The Cabrio has an automatically-deploying rollover bar as well, and the CLK430 has the ESP stability-control system standard.
ROADABILITY: The CLK line is oriented more towards luxury than pure performance, so the double wishbone front, multilink rear suspension is tuned for a firm but still comfortable ride. No CLK is as hardcore as the C43, but all are more sporting than most other luxury- oriented coupes, with very good driving characteristics for fast touring. The Cabrio has very little cowl shake, and tracks through corners surefootedly. The ultra-low profile tires on the 430 give it very good cornering characteristics, with little negative impact on comfort.
PERFORMANCE: Iron fist, velvet glove -- a long-standing tradition among German luxury automakers. The CLK430 is a great example. Its torquey 275-hp, 4.3-liter V8 has plenty of punch for fast acceleration on demand, and a subdued, mellow V8 exhaust note. The 5-speed automatic transmission is a good match -- put it in "D" to cruise or keep it in second or third gear for "cruise missile" mode. The 3.2-liter, 215-hp V6 in the CLK320 Cabrio feels nearly as strong as the V8 at US-legal speeds, with far better low-rpm performance than the old inline six. The 430 shines best at high speeds, but the Cabrio is wonderful with the top down on a scenic road.
CONCLUSIONS: The new additions to Mercedes-Benz CLK line offer two similar but distinct personalities that combine luxury comfort and spirited performance with style.
SPECIFICATIONS Base Price $ 47,200 (47,900) Price As Tested $ 51,735 (52,630) Engine Type Aluminum alloy single overhead cam 18-valve V6 (24-valve V8) Engine Size 3.2 liters / 195 cu. in. (4.3 liters / 260 cu. in) Horsepower 215 @ 5500 rpm (275 @ 5750 rpm) Torque (lb-ft) 229 @ 3000-4600 rpm) (295 @ 3000-4000 rpm) Transmission 5-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 105.9 in. / 180.2 in. Curb Weight 3,669 lbs. (3,426 lbs) Pounds Per Horsepower 17.0 (12.5) Fuel Capacity 16.4 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded premium, 92 octane Tires P205/55 HR17 Continental Touring Contact(F: P225/45, R: P245/40 ZR17 Continental Sport Contact) Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock and BrakeAssist standard Suspension, front/rear independent double wishbone / independent multi-link Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 19 / 28 / 22 (18 / 25 / 20) 0 to 60 mph 7.7 sec (6.1 sec) 1/4 mile (E.T.) 15.7 sec (14.8 sec) Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.32 with top up (.031) OPTIONS AND CHARGES CLK 320 Cabrio: Mineral Green paint $ 600 Integrated CD changer $ 750 ESP stability control system $1,000 K4 Value Added Package - includes rain sensor, headlamp washing system, Xenon headlamps, heated front seats $1,590 CLK430 Coupe Bordeaux Red paint $ 600 Integrated CD changer $ 750 K3 Value Added Package - includes rain sensor, glass sunroof, electric rear window sun shade $ 1,290 K4 Value Added Package - includes headlamp washing system, Xenon headlamps, heated front seats $ 1,495 Destination for each $ 595